Pressly: Pensioners prop up Independent newspapers. PIC’s R1.2bn gift.

In life there is always more than meets the eye. And while the ‘perceived’ agreement between former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and Independent newspaper group may have brought some quiet relief, what it has done is put all eyes back on the Independent group. The story goes beyond Dasnois’ axing, to when the Public Investment Corporation plunged R888 million into the purchase of the Independent group. It was structured as a five year loan with no interest payments, with the bulk able to be converted into equity when the term runs up. In parliament Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier said investing in newspapers was tantamount to investing in horses and carts when the Model T was already out of the streets. And they blatantly ignored the interests of its pensioners. The PIC did acknowledge they had political motive behind the purchase, so what happens next, surely there has to be accountability for sub-par investments, and worse yet, those that hang under a cloud? And as Maynier alluded to, has the PIC carried out its mandate of protecting pensioners’ interests? Below veteran parliamentarian reporter Donwald Pressly’s responds to the matter. – Stuart Lowman

By Donwald Pressly*

Donwald Pressly
Donwald Pressly

Teachers, nurses and police officers are propping up Independent Newspapers, which dominates the English language print media market, to the tune of nearly R1 billion, and counting. This has to be the scandal of the month, if not the decade. It so happened that Alide Dasnois, who was fired as editor of the group’s newspaper, the Cape Times, in December 2013, got a settlement out of Independent in the same week the story of the pillaging of public money – in this case pensioners’ money – came out in the open for the first time since Sekunjalo bought the newspaper group in August of that same year.

The state capture of The New Age and ANN7 by the Guptas is a scandal in itself – or is it the Guptas that have captured the state? But it is now emerging that Independent’s capture of pensioners’ money is likely to eclipse anything going on at the Gupta empire, at least in money terms. The story of Iqbal Surve, the Independent Newspapers chairman and Sekunjalo chairman, is a remarkable one. What he has pulled off is so clever, so crafty. When he told Dasnois in her disciplinary hearing that he would “use every single cent” to prove she was an irrational woman consumed with hate, he was actually talking about his access to public money, just short of a billion rands of it.

Surve said also: “She simply decided to incur the cost of a wrapper and put it out there. That is the truth of the matter. History will prove me right, okay, in more ways than one.” He also said at the time. “My intention is actually to have the facts around Alide made public in a very, very big way. And I’m quite happy to do that, because I think the truth must emerge eventually as to what actually happened and her conduct.”

See Noseweek article: What the Doctor ordered

Thanks to the efforts of Democratic Alliance finance spokesman David Maynier, the Public Investment Corporation, which manages about R1.8 trillion in investments including the Government Employee’s Pension Fund, acknowledged in Parliament last week that they had a political motive for plunging R888 million into the purchase of the newspaper group from Sir Tony O’Reilly’s Irish team. They have asked for no interest payments for five years and at the end of 2018, the bulk of this can be converted to equity. That is equity in a failing newspaper group. As Maynier said investing in newspapers is tantamount to investing in horses and carts when the Model T was already out of the streets. The CEO Dan Matjila said that the investment was intended to create “a black Naspers”. Naspers is a massive media group which had its roots in newspapers but now is hugely diversified, but still owned and dominated by Afrikaners. What the PIC has done is ignored the interests of its pensioners – and would-be pensioners – to achieve the aim set out by the SACP that the state needed to capture independent – that is with a little ‘i’ – media.

Read also: Alide Dasnois’ 67-page ‘tell all’ affidavit. Suing Survé’s Independent for R4m.

It is instructive that Dasnois was fired for carrying a lead story about Sekunjalo’s marine patrol vessel tender on that fateful day of December 16, 2013. On the day of Nelson Mandela’s death, Dasnois chose to carry the story showing that the public protector Thuli Madonsela wanted the Sekunjalo bid further investigated by the competition commission. Mandela was acknowledged by a wrap-around, which Surve regarded as an insult to his memory (and, to quote his own words, obviously costly). To cut a long story short, this – carrying the Sekunjalo story – surely is the reason that Dasnois was fired. A number of reporters, including me, had been covering this marine vessel story for some time. Effectively because a dodgy official ranked Sekunjalo significantly higher that Smit Amandla Marine during the tender, the incumbent managers of the ships. As a consequence the latter corporate was able through court action to derail Sekunjalo’s preferred bidder status for a R800 million contract.

While Surve lost the marine patrol tender – something which obviously infuriated him – he went on to persuade the Public Investment Corporation to loan him R888 million instead. As no interest payments are required for five years, this amount has gone up to nearly R1 billion. He has thus been able to use pensioners’ money to turn Independent Newspapers into a propaganda vehicle for the ruling African National Congress.

Read also: James Myburgh: How independent is Surve’s Independent with R900m PIC debt?

Not a day has gone by without ample evidence provided that the Cape Times – in particular – is used as a medium to hammer opposition parties and to sing and dance to the ANC’s tune. If there had been a legitimate sale of Independent to Sekunjalo, it would be perfectly acceptable for Surve to determine the political line of the newspaper company. But many questions are raised about whether the Public Investment Corporation has carried out its mandate of protecting pensioners’ interests by openly aiding and abetting state capture of South Africa’s biggest English media group.

When the five year interest payment holiday is up, the amount owed to the PIC will be about R1.2 billion. Of course most of that will be converted into equity in Independent Newspapers, so this deal will effectively mean that the Independent Newspapers’ deal is, essentially, a very expensive gift to a ruling party agent.

  • Donwald Pressly, Editor of Cape Messenger